Knowledge Exchange Corner

What is Civil Society?

Civil society has been described as a social value and a set of social institutions. As a value, civil society may be seen as a reflection of the views and needs of the community which may be expressed independently of the state. As a set of social institutions, civil society refers to the social organizations and groups which are distinct from, yet interact with, the government, the market and the family. These social organizations and groups, commonly called civil society organizations (CSO), typically consist of work associations such as trade unions, employers' federations, and professional associations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) which bring people together in a common cause, community-based organizations (CBOs) set up at the grassroots level to pursue member-based objectives, and religious communities. Apart from being a watchdog of government and business, a vibrant civil society is an important social partner in governance. At its best, it creates resources to solve social problems and directs social development, facilitates public policymaking and implementation, and promotes mutual trust among government, business and citizens.

Partnerships with Government
The importance of partnerships between civil society organizations and governments in the interests of good governance is well recognized internationally. The World Bank, for example, emphasizes the important role that nongovernmental organizations play in meeting the challenges of development and welcomes the opportunity to work with civil society. The European Commission of the European Union, too, links social and economic development with the development of civil society and NGOs.

International agencies have also recognized the link between their efforts to promote good governance and the positive role that civil society may play to help achieve that aim. Good governance is variously defined but it often contains both a normative and a prescriptive element. Governance involves the way in which power is exercised but it also encompasses the notion that power should be exercised so that it underscores the government’s commitment to certain values: accountability, transparency, openness, the rule of law and participation. Civil society is important in this process because it provides both a check on governments which would seek to act in ways which contravene those values and because active citizen participation in the affairs of the state has traditionally been seen as an indicator of a healthy polity.

Civil Society in Hong Kong
Over the past three decades, Hong Kong has developed an increasingly important and vibrant civil society. In the 2000 policy address, the Chief Executive acknowledged this importance and observed that the ‘third sector’, which is defined as organizations which are neither profit-oriented businesses or government agencies ‘can often find solutions to social problems that appear intractable to both the market and Government’. In the following year, the Government announced the establishment of a $300 million Community Investment and Inclusion Fund, designed to encourage the building up of social capital, community participation and the development of the third sector. These initiatives have been welcomed by peak organizations, such as the Hong Kong Council of Social Service, the Legislative Council and many voluntary organizations. These structural initiatives suggest that there may be difficulties in the relationships of civil organizations with the market and with government; that their full potential is yet to fully realize and that there may be duplication of function and contradiction of purpose. Anna Wu, the then Chairperson of the Equal Opportunities Commission, was once asked why there were so many NGOs in Hong Kong. She replied that, perhaps among other factors, it had to do with a permissive rather than prescriptive legal system, with the mobilization of social forces that was ‘undirected, widely participatory and bottom up’ and with government policies in which a large space is carved out for the community. These features of the Hong Kong system have made for large numbers of civil organizations - some highly visible, others not – who can, under some circumstances play highly positive roles in the achievement of social policy objectives but who may also wish to see their own values more fully represented in policy and who can act as a serious obstacle when policies come into conflict with their own aims.